Obama's Flip-Flops: Another View

Washington Matters

Obama's Flip-Flops: Another View

I was all set to join the chorus of commentators looking at Barack Obama's recent flip-flops and waffles and concluding, "Aha, you're just a typical politician after all." And then I read a column by Charlie Cook, who got me thinking in a different direction, as he often does.


There's plenty to criticize Obama about if you don't like politicians who tack left or right in the primaries to appeal to the base and then move to the center for the general election. Ken Vogel did a nice job of summing them up in Politico on Friday, but just to mention a few:

  • Obama once said he'd accept public funding for the general election campaign if his GOP opponent did, but now has reversed himself.
  • Obama once said he supports the Washington, D.C., ban on handguns but agreed with the Supreme Court last week when it knocked the law down and concluded the authors of the Bill of Rights meant to provide for an individual's right to bear arms.
  • And he dropped his opposition to legislation granting liability to phone companies that helped the government tap phones without warrants, saying changes in the legislation make it more acceptable.

McCain has his own share of flip-flops, but they seem somehow more honorable than Obama's because he admits them and often has a reasonable explanation. On immigration, for example, he says he backed away from his own comprehensive plan because he realized the American people won't allow guest workers or legal status for those already here illegally unless they're convinced the borders have been secured. That's a pretty reasonable conclusion and a pretty practical one.


Obama, on the other hand, is showing a dangerous tendency to parse words a`la Bill Clinton -- or worse. On campaign finance, he came up with the most bizarre explanation, somehow arguing that because of his grass-roots support, his decision actually helps end the big money system instead of prolonging it. That was a couple of days before he met with Hillary Clinton's fat cats to ask them to open their checkbooks. Hardly grass roots.


The Supreme Court flip was worse. An Obama spokesman said the earlier statement hadn't been phrased carefully enough -- never mind that Obama taught constitutional law and is nothing if not a master wordsmith.


So here I was, all set to go after Obama when along comes Charlie Cook with a column about the particular challenge Obama faces in persuading voters that they don't need to be afraid of putting him in the White House. Cook isn't writing about the flip-flops -- he's comparing Obama's precarious lead in the polls to the one Ronald Reagan held over Jimmy Carter in 1980.


Cook says that race was very tight because voters weren't sure they could trust Reagan with the presidency. Why? Because while they wanted change, they were afraid Reagan would bring too much change. Not until the debates were they sure he was okay, and they then elected him in a landslide. Cook says Obama faces the same dilemma -- with the same risk that voters will fear he represents a dangerous amount of change.


That's a good way to put it. It makes me think that there is a very good reason why Obama can't be too unconventional in the positions he takes. He has to move as carefully as he can to the center, parsing every word -- to make sure he doesn't scare anybody. Some of that need is due to his newness on the scene (or what Republicans and some Democrats decry as his lack of experience), but some of it is also due to the fact that he's different from many of us -- in his background, his upbringing, his unusual name and, of course, as he said recently, he happens to be black.


This is not to excuse the flip-flops, though it may sound like I'm doing that. Voters need to know that Obama stands for something and won't shift with the winds. But voters also need to understand why he may feel taking some safe positions is necessary.


In any event, he needs to be a lot more honest in admitting it when he does change his mind. No one wants another president who is so stubborn that he never changes course. Voters will go along with some change, as long as it's for a reason other than pandering, as long as it doesn't happen too often on too many crucial issues and as long as there's a reasonable explanation.